The negotiations on START may or may not be close to being finished. But it is pretty clear what is holding up an agreement over the treaty: It’s missile defense in Europe. While missile defense concerns on both sides can likely be resolved for this treaty, eventually US-Russian tension over missile defense will have to be resolved if the President is to further advance his disarmament agenda.
The Russians, after initially seeing the Obama administration’s announced change to Bush’s European missile defense program as a significant victory, have realized that the current plan proposed by President Obama will (despite claims from politically craven conservatives) produce a more capable and comprehensive missile defense system for Europe. While the shift in focus by the Obama administration – from long-range missiles that Iran doesn’t possess to short and medium range missiles that Iran does possess – is clearly not directed at Russia, the Russians are still very worried about latter phases of the Obama plan, which call for developing long-range missile interceptors in Europe.
At issue here is that the Russians simply don’t trust the United States – a distrust that has little to do with the Obama administration. An article in Der Spiegel paraphrasing Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center notes:
The Russians, in particular, feel that they are once again being misled. They may believe that man now in the Oval Office has honorable intentions, but they do not believe he is capable of reversing his country’s position on nuclear weapons… For the Russians, this is clearly reflected in Washington’s plans to develop new missile defense systems around the world.
Thus in negotiating a nuclear arms reduction deal through a new START treaty, the Russian military and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin fear that the US is trying to pull a fast one on them. The Russians fear that if we both cut our nuclear forces to the same levels, they will be at a disadvantage, because long range missile defense programs conceivably (if they actually worked effectively which they don’t) could take out some Russian nukes, thereby depriving the two sides of nuclear parity.
Despite assurances from the Obama administration, Russian paranoia makes perfect sense. Not only do they see the US squirm in response to the sensible argument that in any arms control agreement there has to be a connection between offensive and defensive systems in order to maintain the nuclear balance. But they also see that the US is willing to throw billions of dollars every year at unproven and ineffective missile defense systems. And they note with concern when they see three conservative Senators say they won’t support a treaty Ronald Reagan initiated if even symbolic language about missile defense is included. From this, the Russians conclude that we will stop at nothing to develop a massive and comprehensive system that will try to neuter a Russian nuclear response. Der Spiegel quoting Russian military experts:
“This is where the White House’s age-old plan to suffocate our strategic armed forces and destroy our own intercontinental missiles, directly after START, is being implemented,” … They insist that Russia is being surrounded by an “anti-missile fence” that will provide the Americans with one-sided superiority.
Many American conservatives will even acknowledge that their hope is for US missile defense systems to do exactly what the Russians fear it will do. While the right will make the easy domestic political argument – why wouldn’t you want protection from the Russians? – the fact is that any system we develop will only push the Russians to build more nuclear weapons to overcome US defenses. Missile defense won’t make us safer or protect us from nuclear attack, instead it will only lead to greater international distrust and a new nuclear arms race, which would just further increase the dangers of proliferation. Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow’s ambassador to NATO in Brussels noted this bluntly when he said “this [missile defense] plan presents us with even greater challenges. Our military will react with a new weapons system.”
Hence, right-wing paranoia in the United States about Russian nuclear intentions plays directly into Russian paranoia about America’s nuclear intentions. In other words, both our right wings freak each other out, making arms control efforts exceptionally difficult.